You Are What You Eat

The Arch-Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham

You remember the 70s PSA “Time for Timer?”  No?  C’mon!  How old are you?

I still sing them to myself, but mostly the one about cheese: the lyric “I hanker for a hunk of cheese” could hardly be more apt for me.

Another of the PSA messages offered by “Timer” was “you are what you eat” (YouTube below).  This seems to be a truism in which we strongly believe but yet are unable to heed in practice.  We encourage food stuffs and the chemical reconstruction of nutrition via sugar and the food science of “fortification.”  We remove elements that decay (rot)–which are the actual nutrients–and replace them with “preserved” and “preserving” chemical constituents that are claimed to be “the same as” what was removed.  Perhaps this is simply the largest example of our utter domination by the chemical industry.  We put chemicals in and then take more chemicals to regulate the damage.  See, we don’t need nature!  (Of course, the PSA treats the body as a factory/machine.)

This is a victory of context over content.  Our culture has contextually re-imagined food and as a consequence we eat what chemists concoct in their laboratory silos at Monsanto and Procter & Gamble and Cornell and Kansas State.  The construct of “as good as” or even “better than” and “more cost efficient” as well as the “get it whenever you want it” context of our supply chain has emptied us of real content while convincing us, via context, of the opposite.

I feel the same can be said of mind as well as body.

Our current context has convinced us that calculation and utility–measurement–in the service of a proclaimed (asserted) social good will yield health and wealth and liberty.

Calculation is the key term.

It seems too simple to point out.  Reading is hard and critical attention is rare.  We do not cultivate this skill.  Instead we push a cursory literacy that privileges text as something more true that speech somehow; we seem to give it the weight of fact regardless of truth.  We make this a joke–“it must be true if I read it in a book/newspaper/online”–and though spoken as irony, this seems to be the actuality of our response to print specifically in a prejudicial context

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Words in print in the Wall Street Journal are true to a particular constituency–and they bear that weight within the framework of their motivating ideologies.

We will say the same for the The Monthly Review.  Those of us who agree with one or the other will then dismiss the one or the other.  Yet we will proclaim the words, contested and controverted in either case, as true to us.

Currently we are enforcing a “testing regime” in education systems and also a new focus on “common core curriculum standards.”  Both represent a kind of content calculus.

Because we are two things at once, wild and unpredictable and yet inert and malleable (we have a quantum brain and a newtonian body), our social managers must coerce us with messages of achievement and material success and also force us to pass stringent and narrow tests in order to gain some kind of control.

We balk, almost to a person, in some measure at this–though as a country we are incredibly passive and weak-minded–because we disdain external control though we have no clue what to replace it with.  We agree to “go west” and yet are lost upon arrival.

We seem to yearn to be unbounded but are sorely afraid of the freedom.  We need fetters, of any make and model.  Our fetters are entirely contextual–the content can be anything because we are able as interpreters to turn any word, idea or picture to our frame.

Emerson said, “Everything a man knows and does enters into and modifies his expression of himself.”  But he warns us too that “there is a great secret in knowing what to keep out of the mind as well as what to put in.”  As an example he speaks of newspapers: “…have little to do with them.  Learn to get their best too, without their getting yours.  Do not read when the mind is creative.  And do not read thoroughly, column by column.  Remember they are made for everybody, and don’t try to get what isn’t meant for you.”  (Richardson, Robert D., “First We Read, Then We Write.”)

Can we put more behind this idea?  We are always stuck with imploring the greatest American reader and thinker, “How do I know what I should put in?!”  David Bromwich might offer something by way of his reading of Burke.  Burke, he says, “would assert that ‘art is man’s nature.’  He meant that we learn to sympathize by practice in the occasions of sympathy.  Art supplies such occasions more readily, and with more time for reflection, than live can be trusted to do, but the work of imagination is the same in both cases.  That is why he would say in the Reflections that the theater is often a better school of moral sentiments than churches.”  (Burke, “On Empire, Liberty and Reform,” ed. Bromwhich)

We do not cultivate the moral sentiment in school if our context and content privilege and favor calculation instead of “occasions for sympathy.”

You are that for which you are utilized.

Photo Credit: Matt From London

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1 Comment

  1. SS March 7, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    Even if we know what to keep out of our minds it’s difficult in this age of information overload! We are calculated upon relentlessly, and encouraged to over-indulge in all ways. Information, like food, is presented to us in an addictive, impulsive format. Eat processed foods and check your Facebook feed 25 times a day!


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